In the late 19th century, some guy thought it would be a good idea to build a train line from Europe across the whole of Asia. This guy was Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and this project became the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Some 120 years later, it’s still the longest railway in the world, spanning 9,300 kilometers, 87 cities, eight time zones and two continents. If you take a nap starting at the Gulf of Finland and miss your stop, there’s a chance you’ll wake up at the Sea of Japan.
The Trans-Siberian speeds (or, more often, chugs) through the remotest parts of the Russian homeland and passes through almost every variety of landscape, from snow-capped mountains, to deserts, to forests and lakes.
I rode it in May 2011 as part of a solo back-packing trip from Asia to Europe.
This is what happened:
I arrived at Beijing Railway Station.
I boarded train #3, heading direct to Moscow (duration: 6 days).
Our route would be via the Trans-Mongolian Branch, starting in China and crossing Mongolia before joining the main line through Siberia.
It’s possible to make the 8,000-km journey without getting off, but to preserve my sanity (and my hygiene) I planned to make occasional stops along the way.
Beijing to Ulaanbaatar
For the first leg, to the capital of Mongolia, you choose from three classes of cabin — spalny vagon (first class), kupe (second class), or platskartny (third class).
I had a 4-bed “hard sleeper” compartment in second class, which I shared with one guy from Hong Kong and one from Germany.
There are no showers on board. And the guy from Hong Kong was going non-stop all the way through to Moscow…
It’s an extremely sociable environment, and after the first few hours you’re pretty familiar with your compartment-mates and neighbors. Four-year-old Elena terrorized our carriage. She spoke terrible English and I spoke terrible Chinese; we got along great.
There was a Chinese restaurant car.
And a complimentary lunch, which no-one got too excited about.
We made our way slowly through the mountainous terrain of northern China…
…until the landscape flattened out.
We stopped to make the switch to a lower-powered engine.
Thirteen hours later we arrived at Erlian, on the Chinese-Mongolian border.
Turns out train tracks in Mongolia and Russia are of a narrower gauge than those in China. So… another switchover, this time of undercarriage bogies.
The entire train is lifted up by some amazing hydraulics while you’re stuck inside it for three hours. (And the toilets are all locked to avoid any unfortunate incidents for the engineers working below you.)
You know you’re in a different country when…
You wake up and the Chinese restaurant car has been replaced with a Mongolian one.
And you have to pay $10 for a pretty inedible breakfast…
Landscape change alert: We have now entered the Gobi desert.
Even with the windows shut, the sand find its way in.
And then: The endless desert landscape finally gives away to an urban, mostly concrete sprawl that looks almost as bleak. Welcome to Ulaanbaatar.
Mongolia turned out to be such a fantastic destination, I spent a full week there. But that’s a whole other story…
Ulaanbaatar to Ulan-Ude
How slow is this leg? An Italian traveler I met at the hostel where I stayed left the morning after me, by bus, and got there ahead of me.
To help locate your position, there are distance markers at every kilometer, displaying the distance from either Moscow or Beijing. I spent a long time just watching them go by. Slowly…
After eight hours clearing immigration at the Russian border, I arrived at Ulan-Ude the following evening…
…to discover that the only thing worth seeing here is the world’s largest Lenin head.
Ulan-Ude to Irkutsk
Some of the most spectacular scenery of the whole journey can be seen en route to Irkutsk, which skirts the shores of Lake Baikal.
This is the deepest, clearest, oldest lake on earth, containing one-fifth of the planet’s fresh water and countless species of fish, 80 percent of which are unique to this body of water.
I spent several days exploring an island in the lake — Olkhon, which is bigger than my home country of Singapore.
Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg
This is the longest leg of all: 3,400 kilometers. Please don’t ask me how I came up with the idea of traveling in platskartny, the third class “open carriage.”
I guess I was thinking I’d meet some Russians and spend merry times drinking vodka.
No such luck.
What I got instead was a series of mysterious delays, beginning the next morning. I woke up, looked out the window and calculated that we had stayed far too long in the station and were way behind schedule.
Finally we got rolling again, before another unscheduled three-hour stop in the middle of Siberia.
(I mean, literally in the middle of Siberia.)
I woke to the same scenery.
We were now 15 hours behind. This couldn’t be right. People were having heated conversations with the provodnik (carriage attendant) that I couldn’t decipher. Something was up.
What’s the worst that could have happened, I asked myself? I came up with a few scenarios, the most far-fetched being a dramatic accident — an epic scene of explosions, tearing steel and shooting flames.
A few hours later we got moving again and found out that… A cargo train ahead of us had derailed, leaving behind a terrible scene of destruction.
No shit, Derek.
It was definitely a moment to pause for thought…
The delay presented me with a lesser problem of my own—dwindling food supplies. I had to ration my snacks, since the only thing provided on board was hot water:
Most people had come well-prepared with utensils, cups and plates. Not me. But I did impress some Russians by converting my instant noodles container into a tea cup.
Of course, vodka re-supply was available at every major station.
— Time Out —
All Russian trains run on Moscow time, but there are seven time zones in the country and this journey took me through four of them.
It makes for a very confusing situation, since different clocks are set to different zones. People who boarded the train at Irkutsk, like me, had their watches adjusted to Irkutsk time (GMT +9). The train stations use Moscow time (GMT +4), as should the train itself, but our carriage was a full hour slower (GMT +3), possibly due to a failure to correct for Daylight Savings. The provodniks had their watches set to their respective destinations, usually a major city like Yekaterinburg (GMT +6) or Novosibirsk (GMT +7). Plus, because of the derailment, we were delayed by 15 hours from the schedule displayed in every carriage.
So when the train clock shows 03:00, some people are preparing breakfast while others are trying to get to sleep. And asking the attendants for the time of arrival at a town only creates more confusion. Am I getting there at seven or eight, in the morning or evening? Local time or Moscow time? You reach a point where you can’t tell if you’re eating lunch or dinner.
Yekaterinburg to Vladimir
At some point we cross from Asia into Europe, marked by a white obelisk.
I stopped in Vladimir to visit the fairy-tale town of Suzdal, which crams over thirty 600-year-old churches into an area less than nine square kilometers.
Vladimir to Moscow
It doesn’t look far on the map, but arriving in Moscow feels like arriving in an entirely different country. You can immediately tell you’re in a great European capital on a par with Paris, London or Rome.
Moscow to St Petersburg
This is technically not part of the Trans-Siberian line, but this trip would not have been complete without taking in the magnificence of St Petersburg. Here’s where the Russian Empire sort of began, and my own journey comes to an end.
It’s exactly one month since I left Beijing and I am so glad to have made it all the way. Siberia, where only three per cent of the population speaks English, is no joke for a solo traveler. Think about it: You can wander the streets asking for help, and only 1 in 33 people will understand you.
Was I bored most of the time? Absolutely. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.
By this point, I’ve spent over 161 hours on trains. Was I bored most of the time? Absolutely. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. I’d love to do the Trans-Siberian in winter, from Moscow to Vladivostok.
Traveling continually for this long gives you a special perspective on things. As you gradually head west, you also see cities transform. Monasteries turn into churches. Toilets evolve from holes in the ground to raised seats with flushes. The number of Asians wanes from majority to minority.
It’s like teleporting to a different land every time you wake up.
In the east, cheap left-hand drive cars imported from Japan get mixed in with right-hand ones from Europe. As you head west, the proportion of left-hand drive vehicles decreases, hitting zero by the time you reach Moscow. Somewhere in the middle, it’s a strange — and scary — mix.
Most of all, there’s no other way you could see such a variety of constantly shifting landscapes. It’s like teleporting to a different land every time you wake up.
Finally: How much did it cost me?
Answer: $1175 for one month
$240 — Train from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar
$42 — Train from Ulaanbaatar to Ulan-Ude
$41 — Train from Ulan-Ude to Irkutsk
$88 — Train from Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg
$81 — Train from Yekaterinburg to Vladimir
$11 — Train from Vladimir to Moscow
$30 — Train from Moscow to St Petersburg
$56 — Russian visa
$17 — Moscow policeman bribe
$569 — Food, accommodation, and other expenses
Note that this is the backpacker’s cost — I slept on strangers’ couches, I ate street food, I did everything as cheaply as I could. (That said, I also bought souvenirs, paid for museums, and even watched the Mariinsky ballet.)
Bottom line: I had one hell of an amazing time and, for the same price, there’s no reason you can’t, too.
Derek is an adventure traveler and entrepreneur. He created the Berkeley Ridiculously Automated Dorm (BRAD), a viral YouTube hit which actually has fewer views than10 Cutest Cat Moments. He has been featured in TIME, Forbes, CNN, BBC, The Guardian, and TechCrunch. He knows how stupid writing a third-person bio of himself can be.